Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

HUME: Of Justice (Nature and Wealth)

Several Great Books readings deal with Man in a State of Nature.  How would people live without the benefits of civilized society?  Hume says some philosophers believe the State of Nature would be “full of war, violence, and injustice.”  Thomas Hobbes (Origin of Government, GB2) takes this view.  Hume thinks for other philosophers the State of Nature “is painted out to us as the most charming and most peaceable condition that can possibly be imagined.”  Jean Jacques Rousseau (Social Contract, GB1) tends to think along these lines.  Hume takes the position that of all the creatures found in Nature, Man alone has an “unnatural conjunction of infirmity and of necessity.”  In a State of Nature all other creatures can fairly easily feed and fend for themselves because they have few needs.  And to meet those needs Nature has supplied animals with the advantages of sharp teeth, claws, wings or fins to survive and thrive in their environments.  Human beings don’t have those advantages and additionally we need clothing and shelter.  Left to our own devices in a State of Nature most of us would not survive for very long in a jungle or a desert.  But one advantage we have over most animals is social organization.
Hume admits that human beings are not well-equipped to live on their own and says “It is by society alone Man is able to supply his defects, and raise himself up to an equality with his fellow creatures, and even acquire a superiority above them.”  On our own we’re weak and nearly helpless.  In society we become strong and can acquire the amenities of civilized life.  Hume thinks society provides three important elements for human development: power, ability, and security.  Think of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis (GB1).  A massive common project (such as building a tower or forming a new nation) concentrates power in centralized government.  Workers then develop their own skills and abilities in ways that best contribute to the project.  In return the State provides security so workers can live and prosper in a safe environment.  But how does such a society come into existence in the first place?  Hume believes “The first and original principle of human society is no other than that natural appetite between the sexes which unites them together and preserves their union till a new tie takes place in their concern for their common offspring.”  He agrees with Aristotle (On Happiness, GB1) that the family is the heart and soul of every civilized society.  It is primarily within families that human affection can flourish best.  Unfortunately, says Hume, “so noble an affection, instead of fitting men for large societies, is almost as contrary to them as the most narrow selfishness.”  Our allegiance to our family trumps all other allegiances.  This is perfectly natural according to Hume because “in the original frame of our mind our strongest attention is confined to ourselves; our next is extended to our relations and acquaintances; and it is only the weakest which reaches to strangers and indifferent persons.”  We want good things for ourselves and our families first, then for our neighbors, and only after that for people we don’t know personally.

Good things, the amenities of life, come in the form of having our own private possessions; owning our own clothes, car, home, etc.  Hume thinks “this avidity alone of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends is insatiable, perpetual, universal, and directly destructive of society…”  Thus our primary political problem is fundamentally a moral problem and Hume goes on to say “we are to esteem the difficulties in the establishment of society to be greater or less, according to those we encounter in regulating and restraining this passion.”  The problem of justice is how to regulate and restrain this passion to acquire private property without quenching the passion and discipline required to build a better community, or a very tall tower.  That’s why the just distribution of wealth is a problem at least as old as the Tower of Babel.


Post a Comment

<< Home